For 10 years, Portland Public Schools teacher Tony Hopson watched from the front of the classroom as black students were pushed out of the school doors.
He saw a district that funneled the worst teachers into the classrooms where students had the greatest need -- teachers who didn't think black students could achieve and counselors who discouraged black students from taking advanced courses.
Mr. Hopson says it seemed the potential of many black children was cast aside like scraps of notebook paper on the floor.
"We already know how to educate any child whose education is important to us," said Mr. Hopson, 55, who now runs the Self Enhancement Inc. mentoring program and middle school, which he founded in 1981 to help educate black children.
"It's not that we don't know how to educate black kids," he said. "The educational system doesn't think they're important."
The numbers bear him out.
Just 14 percent of black fourth-graders are proficient in national reading assessments, compared with 43 percent of white students. By eighth grade, there's a 30-point gap in math scores between black and white students, according to 2008 Educational Testing Service reports.
By the time they reach 12th grade, black students are four years behind their white peers in English, math and science and post an average SAT score 200 points lower than do white students, reports the Education Trust, a District-based public policy group.
Also, while nearly 80 percent of white students finish high school, only about 56 percent of black students do, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education. If they get to college, black students are half as likely to graduate.
Nationally, black students are three times more likely to be placed in special-education programs than white students and half as likely to be in ones for gifted youngsters, according to the Harvard Civil Rights Project.
Scholars call this the racial achievement gap -- a decades-long disparity that is at the heart of educational inequity in the black and Latino communities. Mr. Hopson and other educators warn that as America's demographics shift from mostly white to mostly brown and black, the achievement gap -- left unabated -- will have a major impact on the country's economy and work force.
Experts say that if college enrollment numbers among minorities continue to fall, the nation's work force will produce fewer workers to fill critical technology and information jobs. A less educated and less skilled work force also is likely to be a social and financial burden on this country -- high school dropouts are more likely to be incarcerated, to work poverty-wage jobs and to rely on social services.
A 2007 Children's Defense Fund report, "America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline," says poor children are most at risk of ending up uneducated and in jail. According to the report, a black boy born in 2001 has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. A black girl has a one-in-17 chance. A Hispanic boy born in 2001 has a one-in-six chance of going to prison in his lifetime, and a Hispanic girl has a one-in-45 chance.
"Disproportionately, people who fail in school are going to be incarcerated, homeless or on welfare in the future," said Hardin Coleman, dean of the Boston University School of Education.
And many of those people, who are disproportionately black, are going to end up in prison, unemployed, underemployed or on welfare as the nation hurtles toward the day when minorities will make up a majority of America's population.
"Demography is our destiny," said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization that works to make every child a high school graduate. "The question is, 'What kind of destiny will it be?' "
America rose to global prominence largely because it adopted universal education when most countries reserved schooling for the elite. This grew a strong middle class and fueled the innovative society that brought this country wealth and its high standard of living.
Yet even as it set a universal education system, the United States simultaneously produced a system in which students of color were deemed expendable, Mr. Wise said.
Fifty years ago, two schools of thought on education existed, Mr. Wise said, but didn't intersect. One grew from the civil rights movement and said the nation was morally responsible for ensuring that every child got a good education. The other was an economic imperative that didn't need every child to finish school -- a system that favored white students over blacks and got away with it.
"That was the case until 15 or 20 years ago," Mr. Wise said. "It is no longer the case that if we only have about 40 percent of our kids going on to college, most of them who were white, then the economy will do quite well."
"If we look at the changing demographics, we know the largest population of young people is indeed going to be children of color," said Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of "Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation." "If we're going to continue to be productive as a nation, it's going to require a paradigm shift. Our success depends on their success."
The Census Bureau projects that the white population will increase 1 percent by 2020, while the black population will surge 32 percent and the Latino segment by 77 percent.
By 2050, whites are expected to make up less than half of the nation's population. As older white Americans retire and fewer white children are born, the nation will become increasingly dependent upon people of color to drive the economy.
Yet a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education warns that unless black, Hispanic and American Indian students are better served by schools, the percentage of students earning high school diplomas and college degrees in those groups will decline, and so will the nation's gross domestic product.
"If attainment levels for minority students decline as projected, the country's economic standing -- already challenged by China, India and several other countries -- will fall as well," the report says.
The report goes on to say that if the educational attainment of black, Hispanic and American Indian students matched that of their white counterparts by 2020, the United States would see more than $310 billion a year in extra earnings and productivity.
Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and an achievement-gap expert, says it's clear the country spends more money to educate white students than it does to educate poor black and brown children.
"This is where the attitudes of the older white population toward kids of color and funding public education are a threat to their own interests," Mr. Noguera said. "Older white people should be the main advocates for seeing schools improve and seeing more minority kids go to college because those kids are going to be paying for their Social Security."
Mr. Wise said school districts must hire high-quality teachers with high expectations for all students. He says districts also should give extra support to students who come to school already behind and should tailor the education to the child with small classrooms and a broad curriculum.
The key, Mr. Wise says, is to develop the national willpower to improve public high schools, such as the 2,000 schools that a Johns Hopkins University study labeled as dropout factories for graduating fewer than 60 percent of their students.
According to that study, 13 percent of the lowest-performing schools contribute about half of all of the nation's dropouts and about 73 percent of all black dropouts.
But Mr. Wise sees the tide turning. President Obama's stimulus package includes $100 billion for education, something Mr. Wise calls unprecedented, and treats education as economic capital.
In a March 10 speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the president said, "Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us." To fix these problems, Mr. Obama wants an increased focus on early childhood education; standards and testing; teacher quality; innovation; and higher education.
Mr. Wise says it's time the country held its schools and school districts accountable.
"I think everybody needs to ask themselves, 'Is there a school in my community that I won't send my kids to?' If there is, there's work to be done because the kids coming out of that school are going to determine your economic well-being," he said. "Our economic boat has sunk and we're on the storm-tossed economic seas in a lifeboat. We've got to have every child able to pull an oar."
• This article is part of a series by the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies titled "TheBlack-WhiteAchievement Gap in America" at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University.